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Water Quality Tool "Useless For Purpose"

The impossibility of councils being able to properly regulate nitrogen run-off from dairy farms by use of the tool developed by the two major fertiliser companies - Ravensdown and Balance, has been revealed in an article published in Newsroom by Eloise Gibson, who is rapidly becoming the 'go-to' journalist in the environmental sector.

The Parliamentary  Commissioner for the Environment - Simon Upton is suggesting that fixing the system will cost millions, and may devolve upon Government in order to achieve the necessary transparency.

How on earth it was imagined that the Overseer tool designed to help farmers make money from maximising the the milk or meat they gain from using artificial fertilisers could at the same time provide the information regarding excessive nitrogen run-off in order to mount prosecutions beggars belief, but regardless, it is still the primary tool relied on by Bay of Plenty, Canterbury, Hawkes Bay, Horizons, Otago and Waikato regional councils.

Upton's report says the councils with the most pressing water quality issues have had little choice but to use the tool. Farmers oppose councils using blunter controls to reduce run-off, such as capping stock numbers, limiting imported feed, or restricting fertiliser quantities, because those tools give them fewer options for choosing how to meet water goals. “The severity of the nitrogen problem they face has led them to Overseer. Council staff acknowledge the tool is far from perfect, but blunter tools would be required if Overseer was not available,” the report says.

As for the future, Upton wants the government to decide - quickly - whether it wants councils to keep using Overseer or to find another solution. If Overseer is going to be used, it needs to be transformed into an official, open-source tool, he says. “It is time to open up Overseer. If the Government wants to see the model being used as a regulatory tool then a large measure of transparency is needed,” he said in a statement accompanying report.

The report itself carries on with the open-ness theme: “Overseer does not meet the levels of documentation and transparency that are desirable in a regulatory setting … there is no full, publicly available, comprehensive description of the scientific framework.”

“If the answer (to fertiliser company ownership) is no, then it would be an option for the government to buy [their] ownership stake in the intellectual property,” says Upton.

Probably Upton'e most compelling argument lies in the statement:

 “Where Overseer is used to set a farm nitrogen loss limit …or determine compliance with nitrogen limits, there are significant incentives for the deliberate manipulation of Overseer modelling results.” 

To tighten compliance he recommends more independent auditing, to see if records are realistic for the farm and to check that Overseer inputs match other data, such as tax records and fertiliser invoices."


'Questions over accuracy may create as many problems for farmers as they do for our waterways. While the tool might be accurate enough for making commercial decisions about fertiliser purchases, that is a different matter to figuring out whether farms are breaking the law. Right now, the report says it is hard for farmers to have confidence that the estimates councils were using to make compliance decisions were right."

Based on these observations, how any councils manage to mount any prosecutions based on evidence provided by this tool is quite mystifying.

It appears that the DPI along with just about every other Government regulator has for years been applying the softest possible regulatory approach, whether it be phyto-sanitary in DPI's case, mining oversight by MBIE, or WOFs by Transport are by way of isolated examples. 

How this all started we will probably never know, but you can bet that it is rooted in pressure from Treeasury and Finance to save money, polititions endeavouring to avoid electoral 'blow-back,' or simple avoidance of any level of responsiibility by bureaucrats. You may not like Michael Stiassni's approach, but his cvurrent 'clean-up' of Transport is clearly long overdue!




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